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Mentalization, the secret key to better interpersonal relationships

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Exasperated at your teen for yet another argument? Try mentalization. In essence, this is the ability to understand our own and others’ behaviors in terms of internal psychological states. It develops from a deep sense of security that children have towards their parental figures, and it enables them to control their emotions.

We recently spoke to Dr. Eunice Yuen, who is a psychiatry fellow at the Yale Child Study Center and founder of CHATogether, an organization that aims to promote mental wellness in Asian American communities. She emphasizes the importance of mentalization as fundamental to healthy interpersonal relationships, especially those between parents and their teens.

More specifically, mentalization is the “effort that an individual makes to understand other people, in terms of their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes, their beliefs, [and] their desires.” According to clinical psychologist Peter Fonagy, it is a way to understand others’ behaviors as consequences of their feelings and thoughts, as opposed to seeing behavior as arbitrary action that arises from nothing. Therefore, by mentalizing, one charitably sees the explanations for others’ behaviors, and this extra layer of interpretation fundamentally changes one’s attitude and responses toward others.

For example, when your teen oversleeps, misses an important exam at school, and throws a tantrum at you when they come back home, your immediate response may be to shout back at them out of frustration. Alternatively, you could mentalize by reasoning about the source of their tantrum. Perhaps they got extremely stressed, and the only way they could cope with this mountain of negative emotions is to lash out at others, even you. While this reasoning by no means justifies their response, it may encourage you to approach the situation more calmly and with more understanding.

Although mentalization’s underlying psychological mechanisms are similar to that of cognitive empathy, the two capacities activate different neural-cognitive circuits in the brain, since the former focuses on attributing cognitions, whereas the latter focuses on attributing emotions. While their specific relationship is not yet fully fleshed out, some scholars consider mentalizing as essential to empathy. Nevertheless, the two capacities are distinct from one another.

Increasing our mentalizing capacities creates positive downstream effects. These capacities rely on an astute awareness of the self and others during social interactions. Unsurprisingly, mentalizing may boost key perspective-taking behaviors and decrease feelings of distress. It gives us a greater sense of responsibility for what we do, since we recognize that our actions result in consequences that directly affect others’ beliefs and emotions. Unconscious power dynamics actually get in the way of an individual’s ability to mentalize. So, when your thoughts and feelings diverge from your teen’s, try to let go a little and see if it’s beneficial to let them think their own thoughts and feel their own feelings first. Moreover, by mentalizing themselves, parents help develop the skill of mentalization in their children.

What does mentalizing actually look like day-to-day? Dr. Yuen draws an example grounded in the common quarantine experience that many are enduring in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents could mentalize by trying to understand -- with as much curiosity and as little judgment as possible -- what teens may be experiencing during this unprecedented time. Abrupt transitions to online school, cancelled proms, and physical isolation from close friends are just a few of the things they’re going through. So, this may explain the otherwise unusual instances of grumpiness. And on the flipside, teens could mentalize by trying to understand just the delicate balance of responsibilities, full-time remote work and full-time childcare combined, that their parents are juggling. This may explain their parents’ otherwise unusual instances of forgetfulness or fatigue. Mutual understanding may prevent or de-escalate conflict, and it fosters a more positive, forgiving home environment.

In Dr. Yuen’s experience, a common source of parent-teen conflict stems from an assumption that many parents hold about their adolescent children: that their teens are adults. They may physically look like adults, they may consume the same media as adults, and they may even engage in sophisticated reasoning that rivals an adult’s. Ultimately, though, teens are just not yet adults. They have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive decision-making. And the period of adolescence is also marked by ongoing psychological development and maturation. They are figuring out their social identity and values (just to give a few examples!), and this oftentimes creates much confusion and angst for them. Therefore, teens simply aren’t able to make decisions in the same ways that adults do. Remembering this in daily life also promotes parental mentalization capacities.

The next time that you and your teen are approaching a standoff, here’s what you can do:

Pat: I can’t believe you won’t let me go to the mall with my friends. I haven’t seen them since before online school started!

Mom: I know that you miss your friends, and it’s hard on you to not spend time with them in person. But, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and we can’t continue life normally just yet.

Pat: I miss them.

Mom: I know you do. Let’s compromise. Can you do a virtual activity with your friends, like an online escape room or online party games?

Pat: I guess that sounds alright. Let me call them. Thanks, Mom.

Lastly, Dr. Yuen draws an analogy between toddlers and teens. Toddlers want the comfort of their parents’ presence as they play in the sandbox by themselves. Similarly, teens want the security knowing that their parents are by their sides, and they also want the space to develop their autonomy and grow into a full-fledged adult. Mentalization may just help along the way.

We'd love to hear from you! Cherish has free COVID-19 resources (SMS coaching, parent groups) available, and if you're interested in a personal parenting coach with Cherish, please sign up here!

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We spoke with Eunice Yuen, MD, PhD, PGY-6 fellow in the Albert Solnit Integrated Adult and Child Psychiatry Research Training Program, Yale Child Study Center.

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